(CNN) -- The media spotlight might have shone most intensely on Jena, Louisiana, but a symbol of racial violence has been hung across America lately, spurring anger, resentment and a big question.
A symbol of racial violence and hate, the noose is the focus of several alleged hate crimes cases across the U.S.
Do all the incidents of hanging nooses -- many with hateful notes to their intended black audience -- reveal an ugly truth about race relations in the United States, or are they just stupid pranks by a few foolish, attention-starved people?
Since September, nooses have been found in a Coast Guard office, a suburban New York police station locker room, a North Carolina high school, a Home Depot in New Jersey and on the campus of the University of Maryland.
A Brooklyn, New York, high school principal, who is black, received one in the mail recently, along with a letter that read, "White Power Forever," The New York Times reported. In mid-October, a noose was discovered outside a post office at New York City's "Ground Zero," just days after a noose was hung on the office door of a black Columbia University professor.
Earlier this week, the head of a black mannequin was found hanging from a noose outside a home in Valley Stream, New York, police said. Beneath the noose, on the mannequin's neck, was a piece of paper with the "n-word" written on it, said Detective Jeff Schilling of the Nassau County Police Department.
And days before Halloween, a Stratford, Connecticut, woman reluctantly removed from her yard a dark-hued figure hanging from a noose. It was among numerous innocuous lawn decorations, such as ghosts and a plastic grave marker.
"It's unfortunate that now, we're goingto have to think twice about what we display because someone might be offended," Jennifer Cervero told CNN. Watch people take offense at Halloween displays »
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, said that the apparent increase in noose incidents is, in part, reaction to the news coverage of the "Jena 6".
Since September, the SPLC has recorded between 40 and 50 suspected hate crimes involving nooses, one involving two people traveling the road to Jena during the protests in a pickup truck with nooses affixed to the bumper.
"Tens of thousands of white people, if not more, feel that the events in Jena were grossly misportrayed by a politically correct media that twisted what was [to them], really, a six-on-one, black-on-white hate crime into an instance of the oppression of black people," Potok said. "That accounts, in part, for a backlash."
CNN and other news organizations devoted much time and effort covering the September protests in Jena. Led by black civil rights leaders, thousands of people gathered in the small Louisiana town to protest what they said was the racist treatment of six black high school students who were being charged as adults in the beating of a white high school student.
Racial tensions were already at a boiling point in Jena in September 2006, when three white teens hung nooses from a tree near the local high school. The day before, black students had received permission from school administrators to sit under the tree -- a place where white students normally congregated.
The white students were briefly suspended from classes for hanging the nooses, despite the principal's recommendation they be expelled, according to Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. Watch how the noose became an American nightmare
It wasn't long before the focus on Jena was diverted to other racially charged incidents involving nooses in the country. "I would say undoubtedly some of that is 12-year-olds doing the most obnoxious thing they can think of," Potok said.
In early October, a student who recorded a re-enactment of the "Jena 6" incident and posted it on the social networking Web site Facebook apologized, saying the video was not intended to make fun of the six black students, according to The News-Star newspaper of Monroe, Louisiana.
The video, recorded by University of Louisiana-Monroe student Kristy Smith, shows students in blackface apparently acting out the beating of the white Jena student.
One of the men in the tape runs onto a beach acting as if he is holding a noose, and three others -- covered in river mud -- pretend to knock him to the ground, punch and kick him. At least one racial epithet can be heard.
While the Department of Justice doesn't keep track of noose-specific offenses, the government published a report in 2000 showing an increase of nooses in professional environments.
And The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the race-baiting technique still creeps up in professional environments. There have been at least 20 lawsuits involving nooses in the workplace since 2001.
Of the 5,500 racial harassment charge filings in 2006, anecdotal information from EEOC field offices suggests that some involved nooses, but the agency is unable to quantify that data, according to EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.
On Wednesday, seven black workers employed by an Oklahoma-based drilling company won a $290,000 settlement in a discrimination lawsuit which claimed they felt threatened by the display of a noose on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig.
"It's time for corporate America to be more proactive in preventing and eliminating racist behavior," said EEOC Chairwoman Naomi C. Earp. "The EEOC intends to make clear that race and color discrimination in the workplace, whether verbal or behavioral, is unacceptable and will not be tolerated." E-mail to a friend
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